“The Sustaining Grace of God”
Easter 5A – May 12, 2017
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
What sustains you when your life falls apart? Do you turn to anger or bitterness to justify yourself? Do you wallow in pity that life has been so unfair to you alone? Maybe you are consoled by addictive behavior: drugs, alcohol, sex, spending, risk taking, or other dangerous activities?
When our life comes tumbling down on our heads we need something that anchors us, sustains us, gives us reason not to give up, reason to dare believe that it will get better. I’m convinced of this: If you live long enough you are going to face a disaster or major crisis in life. How will you handle it?
It’s like driving a car. The longer you own it and the more miles you put on it, the odds increase that you are going to have an accident. Then you are going to have a frustrating, bad-hair car day. The more defensive you drive, or the less impaired you drive can decrease the odds of a serious accident, but still not be a guarantee against one. There are other drivers whose behavior you can’t control.
Likewise, we can choose to live certain lifestyles that decrease the odds of something happening, but not guarantee it. The truth is, the longer we live the more likelihood there is that something in our lives is going to come apart. It might be the sudden, tragic death of a loved one. It might be a long, lingering illness that attacks, and tests your very soul. It might be an unexplained breakdown in a relationship that knocks you completely off balance. It could be a financial disaster that you have no control over that cruelly changes your lifestyle. It could be an act of war or crime or, as the insurance industry says, “an act of God”. Where will you find the grace to sustain you?
So, what sustains you when your life unexpectedly experiences a crisis? Today’s lessons offer us some advice about
God’s Sustaining Grace.
John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England during the last half of the 18th Century, whom God used to bring great revival to the British Empire, developed a doctrine about the Grace of God that has influenced many modern denominations. Essentially, Wesley said that the work of God’s grace in our lives can be understood as three movements, all orchestrated for us by the Holy Spirit.
First, there is Prevenient, or Preventing, Grace. This is the work of God in a person’s life before becoming a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives trying to keep us from getting so lost in sin that we can no longer hear, nor respond, to the Gospel claims about Jesus Christ. Prevenient Grace thus prepares a person for accepting God’s offer.
The next work of Grace is Justifying Grace. It is the work of the Holy Spirit with us when we accept God’s offer to reconcile us through His Son, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus saying to Nicodemus, “you must be born again.” When we accept God’s offer, we are justified, or made right, with God. This justification is not our own doing. It is the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, on Calvary’s Cross. Christ paid the price. We accept the offer. God welcomes us into His Forever Family. We are prepared – Prevenient Grace. We are accepted, Justifying Grace; and thirdly, there is Sanctifying Grace.
Sanctifying Grace is what sustains us on our journey through life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. As a disciple of Christ you are subject to the trials and tribulations of life, plus attacks of the Devil trying to get you to quit believing, or to render you pretty useless as a witness for Christ. What sustains you when your life falls apart? God offers us Sustaining Grace.
In our first lesson today from Acts 7, we read about the Stoning of Stephen. Stephen was one of the original seven Deacons of the first congregation of Christians. Though his job was to do seemingly mundane things like distribute bread and take care of widows and orphans, he was chosen because of his demonstrated strong faith in Jesus Messiah. Acts 6:3, says the seven were “full of the spirit and wisdom”. Verse 8, describes Stephen as “a man full of God’s grace and power, (who) did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”
Under the leadership of a young firebrand Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem was doing everything they could to stamp out that new sect of believers in a man named Jesus of Nazareth, whom they accepted as the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus was crucified and entombed. Now, his followers were saying he had risen from the grave and was still alive. Such fanatical teaching had to be stopped – at all cost.
Saul’s gang was like the Gestapo of Nazi Germany. They were not restricted by any laws of God or man. They could do whatever they decided to kill, steal, and destroy the lives of targeted people. They were demonic in their power.
Finally, Stephen is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin under the same kind of false charges suffered by Jesus. He begins witnessing to them about Jesus, which only infuriates them more. Verses 56-58, say this: 55But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. Stephen was about to be murdered. What sustained him during his hour of trial?
The manner in which Stephen died is reminiscent of how Jesus died: 60Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. God did not make him unduly suffer; he allowed him to die quickly and effortlessly.
When we live for God we can count on God’s grace and power to be with us at those times of trial and tribulation. God will sustain us! Stephen also knew the reality of these words from today’s psalm (31:1): In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. Maybe this was a prayer Stephen had on his lips as he was being killed.
Here’s another example from the life of Peter. Peter, who had failed the Lord more than once, and been restored by the amazing grace of God Jesus Christ, wrote these lines in his letter we read today: (1 Peter 2:3, 6),3now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. :6 – the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
Peter is passing along the lesson he learned; that God will sustain us when the going gets tough. God is not double-minded. He doesn’t promise to sustain us only when everything is going good. He especially promises to sustain us exactly when everything is falling apart. God is not a fair-weather lover. The marriage vow words, “for better or worse”, are rooted in the nature of God. In Romans 3:28, God says He will work things out in our lives so that good eventually comes to us – even when awful things have happened. Stephen realized the fullness of that promise in his own life, and was able to ask God to forgive the very people who were murdering him. That is grace that more than sustains us. It transforms us; and it is ours for the asking and cultivating. In our spiritual marriage with God through Jesus Christ, this kind of sustaining grace is always there for us.
Peter had this to say to us today: (:9-10) – 9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. . 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. This is what God is calling us to become – the “people of God”. Therefore, God promises to be with us through anything life throws at us. This is why it is important that we maintain our trust in God’s goodness and power to (ultimately) deliver us.
There are people here today who are being sifted by life. There are events taking place that threaten your lively-hood, or your marriage, or your health, or your faith in God’s love for you, or any number of different circumstances. Behind these awful trials are combinations of our choices, events beyond our direct control, the sin of others, and the active work of the devil seeking to “steal, kill and destroy”. Satan intends what you are going through to be for your destruction; but God will sustain you through it, and turn it into something good for you, because God is love, and God loves you.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus said this to us to build our faith and encourage us: (John 14:1-14) – 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. … :6 – I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…. :9 – Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…. 13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
Do you need God’s grace to sustain you? Jesus says, “ask for it and He will do it for you.” When you open your hand to receive communion today give Jesus whatever is tearing you apart, plus your emotional reaction to it. Let Him take it and place back in your hand the faith to trust that God loves you and will fill you with the power of sustaining grace.
What God promises, God will accomplish. Amen?